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Coaches Corner

Player Development
(Mini –Rugby Section)

In this discussion paper I am looking at the early years of the IRFU’s ‘Long Term Player Development’ programme because the importance of these early years is not always appreciated and this is hindering the development of many young players.
Union rugby players – especially Munster/Irish players – struggle with basic skills such as passing, catching, kicking etc. In a technical review for the RFU ‘Diccon Edwards’ (Academy Manager Leeds Tykes Academy) suggests that young league players have more highly developed core skills then their union counterparts because they focus more on these skills at a young age. In his opinion ‘union players’ spend too much time on ‘game specific skills’ (rucking/mauling) at too young an age and he suggests that the emphases should be on ‘functional movement and ‘motor skills’ i.e. (running, passing, evasion, spatial awareness) – the foundation skills for all sport. Edwards’ further states that ‘Coaches have to recognise the importance of the long term approach and not be concerned by short-term victories simply because a team is well drilled in the art of rucking and mauling – or, more commonly, have an early developer who is much bigger or faster than his counterparts’ (Diccon Edwards 2007)

Sport Science & Age Grade Development

In recent years the IRFU have embraced the development philosophies of the renowned sport scientist Dr. Istvan Balyi. Balyi has written extensively on ‘Long Term Player Development’ (LTPD). He has identified chronological ages of optimum trainability i.e. ages where core skills can be both accelerated and maximised. For example, he suggests that the development of motor skills, coordination and spatial awareness can be can be best developed (accelerated) between the ages of 8 to 12 years and that speed can be developed even at a younger age i.e. 6 – 13 years.

The IRFU promote provincial coaching programmes at all levels i.e. mini/youths/senior etc. These courses promote ‘IRB rugby best practices’ and Dr. Bayli’s development ideas. They provide the best possible information on all their courses but there is reluctance on the part of many coaches to accept the validity of what they are promoting.

It is easy for me to identify with Balyi’s research and the IRFU coaching programmes – although I would have some issues around the qualifying criteria for some of them, especially the higher level courses.

Accelerated Learning

As coaches and parents we all know how easily and quickly kids can learn – especially when they are having fun. For example, kids can easily pick-up and learn a language, even when there are no teachers involved – just expose them to the language and they will pick it up.
Why should coaching be any different? .... Why can’t we just create the right environment and promote the type of games that best suits the chronological age of the players: games centred on ‘optimum trainability skill-sets’? (table.1). After all this approach worked well enough for George Best, Pele and Christy Ring.... all of them geniuses in their own sport, despite the lack of formal coaching in their early years

N.B: Table 1 outlines the chronological age for optimum trainability. As can be seen on table 1, the ages of 7 to 10 are accelerated learning periods for co-ordination, spatial awareness and motor learning while accelerated development period for endurance/strength training comes at a later age i.e. 16/18

Mini-Rugby & Physical Contact:

There’s much evidence to suggest that Munster’s traditional ‘physical contact values’ are being promoted at too young age and that ‘age appropriate skills’ are being neglected. The evidence for this can be seen at any half-time ‘mini game’ at Thomond Park – when Munster plays there. These games reflect poorly on current coaching standards at this specific age. So, the question I’m posing!! ... is ‘Diccon Edward’s right?... do we, ( rugby union coaches) spend too much time developing the wrong skills at the wrong age? (Mini rugby/rucks/mauls/scrums) ... or should we be concentrating more on fun activities that promote spatial awareness, evasion and other foundation motor skills: skills essential for all field sports.


As stated earlier, I can easily identify with Diccon Edwards and the development philosophies of Ernest Balyi and the IRFU. However – as Edwards suggests – not all coaches embrace these sentiments. I can recall a youth meeting many years ago in Mallow: an IRFU official was trying to promote less competitive leagues and a more skilful approach to the development of young players. But his suggestions and recommendations were poorly received ... there was no way the coaches present would countenance any changes to their leagues or development set-up ... as far as they were concerned, these were perfect. In the intervening years Munster have fallen behind in the development of our youth teams at all ages.... so perhaps our development strategy isn’t as good as many seem to think it is?

The mini section of NORFC is a progressive section that caters for many young players. It is important this section promotes the development concept of ‘skills first’ and that winning becomes a by-product of this policy rather than its core objective. The future success of our club depends on promoting progressive coaching policies that reflect IRB/IRFU best practices; we need all our coaches to embrace these development policies fully.

I know that Paul Collins (Youth Officer) intends to develop this topic further – it’s an area when he has experience and expertise. This article is just a reflection of some prevailing views expressed by a prominent coach and a world renowned sport scientist. I realise that these views may not be shared by everybody. It will be interesting hearing your views on this subject at a later date.

Pat Whelan

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